Tuesday, June 1, 2010 | On a hot Saturday afternoon in Tustin, campaign volunteer George Pulsifer soldiers through a cluster of suburban cul-de-sacs. His mission: Secure the votes of this conservative neighborhood for Orange County sheriff candidate Bill Hunt.
It’s been a rocky start. He’s already knocked on the doors of four homes, but nobody has answered. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and, he says, lots of people are probably on vacation. But with only 10 days until voters hit the polls, the walk must go on.
The orange-haired Pulsifer wipes the sweat from his brow and knocks on the door of another home. Finally, it sounds like somebody’s coming to the door. A man in his mid-thirties cracks the door open and peeks out.
He’s wearing a 5 o’clock shadow, and nothing else.
“Here!” the man says, showing Pulsifer his bare profile. “Take a picture!”
Such is the unpredictable nature of what political consultants and seasoned campaign managers say is the most effective way to solicit a person’s vote, walking the neighborhoods, one door at a time. It’s an intimate — and, as Pulsifer learned, sometimes too intimate — way to make contact with potential voters.
Even with television, direct mail and social media — with which a candidate can reach thousands of voters with a single tweet — walking still matters. And it has been a difference-maker in some of the biggest political upsets in Orange County history.
In 2004, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, along with an army of volunteers, walked his way into office after facing a “huge funding gap” in the primary election against his opponent, Christi Christich, said local campaign consultant Brett Barbre.
Then there’s Mickey Conroy, who beat William Steiner in an Assembly race in 1991. Barbre said Conroy employed one of the best walking campaigns of the last 25 years to beat Steiner, who had the governor’s support.
But campaign walking is more than just wandering neighborhoods and knocking on doors. There’s a science to walking that requires planning on different levels. Depending on who is walking and for what cause or candidate, the methods range from dropping off brochures on doorsteps to soliciting votes in the aisles of major department stores.
Campaign organizers must utilize effective neighborhood targeting, and on the streets, the walkers have to make at-the-door judgments and only engage in conversations that they believe will yield votes.
Effective targeting all depends on the size of the district, says campaign consultant John Lewis. Smaller districts are more conducive to walking. If the district is small enough, Lewis says, candidates should personally visit every house in the area — people appreciate candidates who take the time to go door-to-door and answer questions.
Lewis should know. When he ran for California Assembly in 1980 at the age of 26, Lewis said he walked his way to victory by covering half his district — which back then included swaths of Tustin, Placentia and Yorba Linda — on foot.
It wasn’t easy, and some terrain is better for walking than others.
“I like to walk nice, flat, compact neighborhoods,” Lewis said.
Barbre said the best shot at earning someone’s vote is having “face-to-face contact” with the candidate. But for larger districts, it isn’t realistic for the candidate to visit every house. That’s when the campaign has to step up the sophistication, organization and planning of the campaign.
Most campaigns already have an idea of the kind of people they want to talk to. A good campaign will hire a company to compile a list of voters in the district based on factors like demographics, party affiliation and voting history.
Barbre said the formula can be broad or specific. For example, a candidate running for office in a Westminster district can hire a list compiler to provide the names and addresses of all Vietnamese-born voters in town.
“You can pick any flavor you want, and they’ll create it for you,” Barbre said.
Some groups are so specific in their targeting that they target only their own members.
Such is the case with the Orange County Labor Federation. Political Director Julio Perez said the labor unions usually only walk to their own members’ homes. That approach offers the best results because union members vote for the union-backed candidate or issue 70 percent of the time, Perez said.
But even if you are confident that you’ll get someone’s vote, you have to make sure they get out to the polls. This is why walking campaigns are key to motivating a candidate’s voting base. And it’s also why a walker for a Democratic candidate won’t waste his or her time visiting a Republican household, and vice-versa.
Beyond possessing a well-honed list, the best campaign walkers have a good sense of knowing when to keep talking and when to keep walking.
The last thing a walker wants to do is get into a debate and ruffle feathers, said Gretchen Coburn, the seasoned campaign volunteer who organized the Bill Hunt walk over the weekend. For the Hunt walk, the campaign organizers chose a neighborhood they knew was conservative and was home to voters who had participated in recent elections.
“It’s number of doors today, not number of arguments,” Coburn told the volunteers during their pre-walk huddle.
That message was not lost on Pulsifer. He said walking requires an intuition to engage in conversations that will produce a vote.
Before Pulsifer says a word, he’s already delivered a message through his get-up, which consists of a Bill Hunt t-shirt and a camouflage patterned cowboy hat. He knows if a person is receptive to the message by the way the resident answers the door. If the person seems apprehensive, Pulsifer will hand the resident a brochure and be on his way.
“I’m not gonna stick my foot in the door and press my issue,” Pulsifer said.
For the residents who display passive interest, Pulsifer pitches what he calls the “wobbler issue,” a quick, attractive hook issue that could swing the person’s vote. In this case, it’s Hunt’s campaign promise to lift a moratorium on concealed weapons.
Then there’s Pulsifer’s “Costco approach.” After the walk, Pulsifer went to grab hot dog at the Costco in Tustin. The idea is that — through his dress — he will be able to strike up casual conversations with war veterans and other folks who identify with the look. Through the method, Pulsifer looks for a bond — and a vote.
“They’re the ones you really want to get,” said Pulsifer, who, in addition to his Costco runs, has made sure that his own neighborhood is blanketed with Hunt signs.
Efforts like Pulsifer’s are exactly what Coburn ultimately hopes for when she organizes walks. The idea is that once volunteers learn the ropes, they will begin walking alone, on their own time and in their own neighborhoods.
“It’s much more effective to have someone they know make the pitch,” Coburn said.
This election season’s walking champ is yet to be determined. Most campaigns are staying mum on the extent of their walking because they don’t want to reveal game plans to their opponents.
But one thing is certain — you can’t get into a political office without walking there first.